Nakkiah Lui's new Belvoir play is uniquely Australian and uniquely hers.
Lasarus Ratuere and Katie Beckett in Belvoir's Kill the Messenger. Photo by Brett Boardman.
Several years ago, playwright Nakkiah Lui was deeply affected by the story of an Indigenous man named Paul, who'd hung himself after he was refused pain medications in a hospital emergency department. Medical tests later revealed he had widespread cancer. While she was writing his story, Lui's grandmother fell through the floor in her housing commission home. It took her three months of suffering in agony to die. Kill The Messenger is their story, and that of Lui herself.
Kill The Messenger opens on a sparse, grey, Ralph Myers-designed set. Two screens project a series of images of a park, followed by photographs of Lui, then her grandmother before and after her accident. It's a stark, powerful stage, perfectly complemented by the subtle compositions of Kelly Ryall and the lighting design of Katie Sfetkidis.
Paul (Lasarus Ratuere) stumbles to a park, swigging alcohol, a rope in his hand. He stands aside, quickly giving way to scene 2, in which Emergency department nurse Alex Ellis lectures a hospital team on the need to monitor patients requesting pain medications. He emphasises those who are black, or drug users: Paul, we learn, was both.
Several scenes later, Lui herself makes an appearance, as we see her in the midst of a sex scene which turns into an argument with her then-boyfriend Peter ( Sam O'Sullivan). Throughout the play, scenes between them are recreated with such honesty that we feel for them both in different ways: for Peter, who describes himself as a mental punch- bag for her frustrations over racism, and for Lui, who has valid reasons for such frustrations. O'Sullivan is wonderful and the chemistry between him and Lui is papable. Lui also demonstrates her high levels of empathy in fictional conversations with Paul and in the obvious love she had for her Nana. It's difficult to believe from his performance that Ratuere is a newcomer to the stage, while Katie Beckett plays Paul's strong, devastated sister Harley to perfection. Matthew Backer is also believable as the conflicted Emergency Department nurse, Harley.
If Nakkiah Lui were based in New York, or LA, her plays might consist of self- deprecating observations on internet dating or sexism in the workplace. But because she was born a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman in Western Sydney, the commonplace concerns for a woman her age are joined by her personal experiences of institutionalised racism. She doesn't have the answers, she admits: the play address the audience and we as the audience need to take it, to care.
Kill The Messenger is an extraordinary play in so many ways: poignant and hilarious, it's uniquely Australian and uniquely Lui.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Kill The Messenger
By Nakkiah Lui
Director: Anthea Williams
Set Designer: Ralph Myers
Costume Designer: Mel Page
Lighting Designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Composer: Kelly Ryall
Dramaturg: Jada Alberts
Voice Coach: Alistair Toogood
Fight Director: Scott Witt
Cast: Matthew Backer, Katie Beckett, Nakkiah Lui, Sam O’Sullivan, Lasarus Ratuere
Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Surry Hills
14 February – 8 March